Cellos Harrison

Background

In February 1940 a white gas station owner, Johnnie Mayo, was murdered, seemingly in an attempted robbery. Cellos Harrison was one of three black men initially questioned about the crime but all were released due to a lack of evidence against them. Over a year later Harrison was arrested again and this time he was charged with the murder of Johnnie Mayo.

Under pressure from law enforcement officers, and without access to a lawyer, Harrison confessed to the murder. Despite withdrawing the confession once he was provided with legal representation, Harrison was found guilty by a jury and sentenced to death. However, his attorneys managed to successfully appeal to the Florida Supreme Court; the Court ruled that the confession should not have gone to the jury.

Harrison’s case worked its way through the Florida court system. Twice he was convicted for Mayo’s murder but both times his lawyers got the convictions reversed on appeal. In the end, however, the Marianna community was not prepared to see a black man go free when a white man lay dead. On June 16, 1943, Harrison was kidnapped from the Jackson County Jail and brutally beaten to death, in a manner which resembled the murder of Johnnie Mayo.

Legal Status

In contrast to the drawn out legal process which characterized the state prosecution of Harrison for the Mayo murder, little effort was made to bring the men who kidnapped and lynched Harrison to justice.

The FBI conducted a thorough investigation in an attempt to identify Harrison’s killers, however the bureau concluded that there was not enough evidence to prosecute the persons responsible for the kidnapping and lynching of Cellos Harrison. On July 19, 1944, eleven months after Harrison’s murder, Assistant Attorney General Tom Clark wrote to J. Edgar Hoover, calling off any further investigation and closing the case. Although the FBI’s investigations raised suspicions against several individuals, including law enforcement officers, Harrison’s case was closed without any recommendations for prosecution. Nobody was ever held responsible for Cellos Harrison’s murder.